NUGGETS

The Nuggets commitment to winning will be tested in free agency

Jun 29, 2022, 6:38 AM
Nikola Jokic...
Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

The Denver Nuggets struggled their way to a sixth-place finish in the Western Conference last season behind Nikola Jokic, who claimed his second-consecutive MVP award. While Jokic was consistently brilliant, Jamal Murray missed the entire season recovering from ACL surgery, and Michael Porter, Jr. only played a handful of games in the season’s first month before being lost for the rest of campaign due to his third back surgery. The Nuggets were summarily bounced from the first round of the playoffs, easily dispatched in five games by the Golden State Warriors, who would go on to claim the Larry O’Brien Trophy and the NBA championship once again.

For the Nuggets and new general manager Calvin Booth — franchise architect Tim Connelly jumped ship to division rival Minnesota to take charge of the up-and-coming Timberwolves — this offseason represents a critical juncture for a franchise that has championship aspirations of their own. The Nuggets recently peaked in the pandemic-era “bubble” of 2019-20, meeting LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals before the Lakers, too, used the Nuggets as a springboard to a title.

Remarkably, only Jokic, Murray, Porter, Jr., Will Barton and Monte Morris remain from that team only three seasons later. Those five players are among the highest-paid six on the Nuggets’ current roster, reducing Booth’s flexibility dramatically as he works to make the Nuggets contenders once more.

For any of that to work, Murray ($31.6 million in 2022-23) and Porter, Jr. ($29.8 million) both have to return to the form that saw them combine for 40.2 points, 11.3 rebounds and 5.9 assists per game in the 2020-21 season; something the Nuggets are counting on this fall. Jokic ($33.0 million) is eligible for a “supermax” deal that will hand him a five-year, $254 million extension that will make him the highest-paid player in NBA history, starting in the 2023-24 season — a whopping $50.8 million average per season that has to be factored into any player acquisitions this offseason. As a result, Barton ($14.4 million) finds himself being shopped around the league as Booth looks to acquire more impactful, two-way players that fit better under head coach Michael Malone’s understandably Jokic-centered system.

The problem is that the Nuggets don’t have that many options at their disposal. They’ll already be a taxpaying team for the first time since the 2009-10 campaign, and they’re hamstrung by the fact that they still have four roster spots left to fill even after the additions of Kansas’ Christian Braun and UCLA’s Peyton Watson as first-round selections in last week’s draft.

Braun, fresh off the NCAA’s national championship, is almost certainly ready for minutes off the Nuggets’ bench as a versatile wing with catch-and-shoot ability, while Watson is likely a prospect; the former five-star high-school recruit has wondrous athleticism and impressive defensive talent, but likely needs more seasoning before being able to contribute in any significant fashion. Second-rounder Ismael Kamagate will likely play in Europe this season as a “draft-and-stash.” Moreover, if and when they do trade Barton, they’ll need to either add a player that can replace him as a starter, or gamble that second-year sensation Bones Hyland is ready to play that role on what’s expected to be a top-four playoff team.

The Nuggets have the $6.5 million midlevel exception available, which Booth noted that ownership — hot off winning both the Super Bowl with the Los Angeles Rams and the Stanley Cup Finals with the Colorado Avalanche — has authorized him to spend, despite the tax impact. Tasting a couple of titles may have persuaded Stan Kroenke to spend more on the Nuggets, but the trade of JaMychal Green to Oklahoma City prior to the draft looked like nothing less than a salary dump.

Green’s trade did leave the Nuggets another $8.2 million to spend as a trade exception, and whether Booth uses that or not may indicate how serious the franchise is at competing this season in a tough Western Conference that already sees the Timberwolves, New Orleans Pelicans, Los Angeles Clippers and the Lakers — who will be threats so long as they still have James and big man Anthony Davis — nipping at their heels.

For Booth, the first step will be in ascertaining what the Nuggets are at this point in time; after all, even without Murray and Porter, Jr., they finished only five games out of third place in the West. But with the Warriors back on top, the Ja Morant-led Memphis Grizzles and the Luka Doncic-led Dallas Mavericks ascending, only the Utah Jazz look like a team that the Nuggets are entirely ready to climb over. Despite their playoff flameout, discounting a Phoenix Suns team that went a league-best 64-18 would be foolhardy. Realistically, if everything goes right, the Nuggets should battle for one of the West’s top four playoff spots, but a couple of injuries — or an underwhelming free agency period that starts on Thursday, could relegate Denver to the risks of the play-in tournament. Championship contenders don’t end up in there.

Booth will have to be creative and aggressive in free agency and the trade market, and Kroenke will need to allow him to tackle both with gusto. Anything less, and the Nuggets will be stuck the NBA’s version of limbo — not good enough to win big, but not bad enough to reinvent themselves in the draft lottery; a dark and foreboding place that teams can get lost in for years.

The Nuggets have never had a reigning MVP on their roster before last season, let alone the back-to-back one they’ll have this fall, and now armed with the best player on planet Earth in Jokic, failure is not an option. Denver’s moonshot starts in earnest this week.

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The Nuggets commitment to winning will be tested in free agency